05 December, 2012

Homemade Christmas: Vegetable Japan's 10 Favourite Things


Last night I watched Oprah Winfrey revive her Favourite Things for 30 families who had been nominated for helping others. Of course Oprah had the latest and best of everything to surprise the group and it was touching to see their gratitude. I think that someone was recognizing them for their work and caring was as powerful to many of them as the gifts they were getting. And a few of them said that they were so happy because it meant they would have gifts to give their family this Christmas. This made me think how grateful I am to have the skills to bake and sew and craft so that I can give gifts to my family, even when I have very little money to spend.

I remember that my making journey started out as a young college student in the 60's wanting some clothes that I couldn't find locally, or have afforded if I did. My first sewing project was a long, elastic waisted skirt in silky material splashed in impressionist soft greens, pinks, and mauves that I barely had the skills to finish. I think my aunt may have helped with the hard parts. I was proud of that skirt and wore it with a soft green “poor boy” sweater -- and lace-up boots -- for years. It made me feel like the hippie princesses we were all in love with then.

The most memorable things I ever made were toys for my three step-children one Christmas when we had no money. We had a very small budget and I was dismayed to find that by the time I had bought small things to fill their stockings, there was no money left for presents. And it was Christmas eve. I racked my brains for something to do. 

Somewhere in the house, I found a few pieces of coloured felt. I drew freehand characters designed for each child from my imagination. I had no experience in toy-making and little in sewing so I was pretty nervous about what I was doing. I think I used a blanket stitch all around the edges because I was hand-sewing and needed a way to join the edges. The thing was, I didn't really know how to do a blanket stitch.

Thankfully as I worked on them, the details started to take shape. I made a doll for my daughter. I appliqued and embroidered, in a fashion, eyes, nose and mouth, a little round belly and made some flaxen yarn hair. For one boy a jaunty rabbit with a wry smile and a pom-pom tail, and a deputy dog for the other with starred vest and holster complete with a yellow banana. The toys turned out better than I ever imagined they would, which I guess means they were somewhat presentable, and though I sat up all night to finish them, the kids' excitement made Christmas that year shine so bright. In my memory, and the memories of my children, now all grown, the glow of those gifts will never fade.

That is the magic of a gift that comes from the heart. It's the kind of gift that gives as much to the giver, in the anticipation of planning and in the hours of making, as they mean to the giftee. I know these days that time to make crafts or bake some treasured recipe is scarce and that many people just can't find that time. But if we can, we can find more than money saved in the experience of making something. It might not always be so easy, and the result full of character rather than mass-produced "perfection" but the experience of the struggle, the making, says something to the heart.

I've put together a list of 10 of my favourite things for Christmas. These are the things I will be making this year. Some of them, like the fruitcake, an old family recipe, I have made for years. A few, like the tawashi and washcloths, are repeats from last year, because you really need more than one so one can be in the wash. I will be making more of the mesh dishcloths in my new favourite yarn and colour. I love pima cotton yarn (Berocco Pure Pima Cotton) in a rich medium indigo blue that reminds me of Japan. Because it is made of pima cotton it has a lovely sheen, stands up well to use and washing in the washer, doesn't show stains and keeps its good looks. And, though it's a bit more expensive, I think the added beauty and durability is worth it. I have tried other dishcloth patterns but the mesh is by far superior because it dries better and the ridges are useful for scrubbing.

And this year I discovered a little bonus of a tawashi: it substitutes for bleaching to get coffee and tea stains out of mugs. Just squirt in a bit of detergent, wet the tawashi and cup and swirl the tawashi around a few times, rinse, and presto -- stains gone.



Hope you can make something this holiday season, for you, as much as the people on your list, but even if you can't, have a little fun browsing around and dreaming of a homemade Christmas. Or maybe you could support a maker by finding something handmade from a sale in your neighborhood, a craft market, or a site like Etsy.

 My 10 Favourite Things for Christmas:

1. Tawashi and Peppermint All-purpose/ Dish Cleaner
A tawashi is always hanging over my kitchen sink and very much loved for cleaning dishes and all but the greasiest pots and pans. I use it with my all-purpose/dish cleaner which is also great for bathroom fixtures, in the scrub bucket and cleaning all around the house.

2. Pima Cotton Mesh Dish Cloths

From Rachel at Crochet Spot, this all-purpose mesh dish cloth I cast on 40 stitches and work 18 rows to compensate for the thinner pima cotton yarn. Otherwise,follow the pattern.

3.  Homemade Cranberry Spice Liqueur

I haven't made this for many years since I made it with fresh-picked wild Partridge berries in Labrador and it was divine, spiced up with orange peel, cinnamon sticks and raisins, but this recipe from Barb Kiebel at Creative Culinary -- without the spice -- looks good too. I usually just wing it but thought I would provide a link for people to try.  There's a bonus of a cocktail recipe, using the liqueur.

4.  Tiny Clothespin Doll Ornaments from Martha Stewart

These little cuties don't take too long to make unless you get into designing elaborate clothes. They are cheap if you buy small bottles of acrylic paint and brushes at the Dollar Store. Last year I made original ones -- Geisha, Sari Lady, Oprah, Ballerina, Fairy, Folk Art Santa.

5.  Nannie's Darkest Fruitcake 

Gloriously  dairy-free, gluten-free and vegetarian, (but contains a few eggs),this rich fruity treat is a tradition in our family. I hope you will forgive me for putting it up for the third year. Update: Last year I made it with Earth Balance Original, an organic non-hydrogenated margarine (not butter) and it tasted fine.

6.  Scotch Shortbread Squares:

Check out Joy of Cooking for the flakiest, butteriest ones I always make to raves from all. Unfortunately, they're not Gluten or dairy free so I make them for gifts only.  I often make them in a pizza pan and cut them in thin pie style wedges, decorating with a bit of confectioners icing and pecan nuts. I will try to post my version of this recipe soon for anyone without the book.

7.  Karina's Gluten-free Chocolate Mint Cookies 

These are loved by everyone, gluten-free or not. They have just enough chewy bite and yummy mint chocolate flavour and keep great in the freezer. In fact they taste best frozen or just barely thawed. I usually make these without the chocolate chips as I never seem to have them in the house. They are just as good.

8.   Magic Anti-itch Salve (for me and my daughter's dog)

This is a folk remedy for itching that actually works. I have eczema and this takes out the itch.  Just apply, rub in and wait about 1 minute for it to take effect.

Take a mason jar or other glass jar with a lid. An old jam jar or baby food jar works fine. Put in a cup of sunflower, safflower or other vegetable oil, add 4-6 tablespoons of shaved beeswax and 2 tablespoons of powdered cinnamon. Put in the microwave for 30 seconds and again at 10 seconds increments, if needed, until wax is just melted. Stir with a chopstick. Or put the jar in a small pot half full of water and melt over medium heat on the stove, stirring.  Put the cover on and cool in the fridge for half an hour to an hour to set. If by chance your salve is too soft for your liking, simply shave in a bit more beeswax, microwave, stir and cool. If too firm, add a bit more vegetable oil. Write down the proportions you liked for next time.

You can decorate the top with a printed flower cut out from a magazine or greeting paper or used birthday card and seal it with a bit of brushed on white craft glue, if you want to make it fancier. Sometimes I "antique" it by brushing on a thin coat of acrylic paint and wiping it off to create an aged look.

9.  Free printable Santa Victorian Christmas cards

At All Things Christmas, these elvish Santas melt my heart. Scroll down the page for the collection in PDF Format. I print mine on craft paper in gray or vanilla and write my own greetings inside.

10.  The Most Comprehensive Online Directories of Free Knitting and Crochet Patterns

If none of these projects suit you, and you can knit or crochet, you might find just what you want at Crochet Pattern Central or Knitting Pattern Central. If you haven't found these yet, these fine sites are directories of free patterns of all shapes and sizes. Because they are indexed by type, if you are looking for hats, for example, you will find links to dozens of patterns of hats in websites all over the net that you might not have discovered in many hours of searching. I love these resources and am so appreciative of the website owner's hard work. Apparently it is all done by one woman working in her spare time. Thanks, Rachel, for this great gift!

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